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Music Picks

Why Most Cover Songs Stink

And Cat Power's don't.

By Elaine Corden 24 Jan 2008 |

Elaine Corden writes about pop culture for the Tyee. Her work has appeared on CBC Radio, and in The Georgia Straight, The Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail, Vancouver Magazine, Time Out, Victoria Times-Colonist, Monday Magazine, FFWD, The Hour, North Shore News, Shared Vision and some papers in Florida, Texas and Oregon she forgets the names of. Until recently, she authored the music column "Band Geek" for WestEnder, where she also acted as Arts Editor. She maintains the pop-culture obsessed blog Trifective, and is currently working on her first novel.

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A cheeky take on Sinatra et al.

Cover songs are a difficult matter. More often than not, a cover is simply a poor facsimile of the original (see almost every Beatles cover ever, esp. any song from the soundtrack of the gawdawful I Am Sam), or worse, a re-interpretive butchery that stands as an absolute affront to everything the song is supposed to mean. (Watch the following clip of Bon Jovi's lighters-in-the-air-cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" at your own risk.)

There are exceptions. Nina Simone was the undisputed master of reinterpreting other songwriters' works. (Hunt down her Leonard Cohen cover, a breathtakingly upbeat version of "Suzanne," or her cover of the Beatles' "Here Comes The Sun," to hear her succeed where so many have failed.) Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton are similarly gifted at making others' songs their own, as are lesser-celebrated artists like the Richie Havens, the late Harry Nilsson and of course, Marianne Faithful. (Are you digging up your old records yet?) But by and large, the cover song more often serves to illuminate the cover artist's shortcomings -- mighty as their efforts may be, the cover artist almost always calls painful attention to a disparity in talent rather than the quality of the song.

Chan Marshall, better known as indie rock chanteuse Cat Power, doesn't seem bothered by this potential peril at all. This week, the notoriously stagefright-stricken performer released her second album of covers, Jukebox, following her critically-acclaimed 2006 album of original works, The Greatest. As with her first album of covers, 2000's The Covers Record, Marshall hasn't shied away from major artists, and is seemingly unafraid to try legendary songs on for size.

The album opens with a fantastically cheeky affront: Marshall's sultry, distinctly less-fragile-than-usual voice crooning "New York," a song intrinsically and intractability linked forever in time with Frank Sinatra. The two minute cover recalls Janis Ian's '70s soul more than Frank Sinatra's The Chairman of the Board, and amazingly, before the song is through, it belongs, if only for the moment, to Marshall. Next, Marshall takes on a similarly sacred cow, covering Hank Williams's "Ramblin' (Wo)Man." Though an admirable effort, it hardly holds a candle to the mournful, wailing original. (Marshall may have the voice that launched a thousand bummers, but come on -- no one can top Hank Williams.)

Other efforts on Jukebox fall similarly short when compared to the original (particularly Marshall's take on the George Jackson hit "Aretha, Sing One For Me," which comes off like a plastic soul song), but of course the point here is not to play spot the difference.

Jukebox's strength is, as Marshall must fully be aware, the unusually emotive, powerful timbre of Marshall's voice; the way the singer (and songwriter, in her own right), uses her voice as an instrument that draws the full glory out of each word and note. On the album's best songs, including traditional hymn "Lord Help The Poor & Needy" and the surprisingly fresh cover of Joni Mitchell's "Blue," it's possible to take the album as a larger statement about the transformative, transcendent nature of music: that two talented artists can produce such markedly different -- yet still wonderful -- versions of a song highlights the power of song craft rather than the skills of the performer. It's music as a lasting expression of feeling rather than an expression of talent, which surely, is art achieving its most lofty goals.

That said, please keep your Beatles covers to yourself. That means you too, Jon Bon Jovi.

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